As hyperinflation ravaged Venezuela, Franklyn Casar's earnings driving tanker trucks for the state petroleum company had become practically useless. A year and a half ago, he said, he and his family sold everything and left their world behind. They flew to Mexico City and hired a guide at great expense to get them into the U.S.
They were terrified they'd be turned back, but border officials let them in, pending the adjudication of their political asylum claim. They came to Chattanooga. Then a new set of challenges emerged.
While their case awaits adjudication, asylum seekers exist in legal limbo. While he's waited, and waited some more, for authorization to work, Casar has had to rely on irregular jobs like landscaping -- an industry that goes largely dormant in winter. Meanwhile, his family life has been strained; he and his longtime wife split up.
Early this year, the nonprofit La Paz got Casar some help from the Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund, which helped tide him over until work picked up again so he could pay rent on the room he shared with his son. Yet, now sharing an apartment with seven others, he feels an urgent need to find a home for just him and his son, so his three daughters have somewhere to stay when they visit. And he said he's ashamed to ask for more help.
"I'm not used to it," he said in Spanish on Wednesday, on a couch in the living room of an apartment at the foot of Signal Mountain.
For a decade, Casar said, he transported gas in tanker trucks for Petroleum of Venezuela. In addition to normal wages, he accrued savings payable, in theory, whenever he left the job.
Before that happened, the once oil-rich country's government and economy collapsed — the 2018 inflation rate was well over 100,000% — sending millions of its people fleeing to neighboring nations. With the Venezuelan currency dramatically devalued, a single gallon of milk could eat of a huge portion of family's monthly income, Casar said.
He said the decision to leave was scary. People who quit the state-owned company were often labeled traitors to the country, and he said he was vaguely told quitting would come with a price — maybe even his arrest.
Ultimately, for reasons he said he still doesn't understand, the company let him leave, though his final visit to the boss's offices to collect the parting pay was a great disappointment. In normal times, he said, his credit from the decade of work — which involved long hours on dangerous highways, without sleeping or eating — would have accrued to the equivalent of at least $10,000.
"For 10 years of service, he said, "the company gave me $120."
He said the journey to the U.S. ultimately cost about $18,000 — and his family had to sell the house, car, furniture, television, even their clothes to undertake it. In 2022, Casar, his wife and their four children set off, first to Bogotá, Colombia, then flew to Mexico City, where they prepared to approach the U.S. border.
They found and hired a so-called "coyote" to guide them there. The trip was haunted by uncertainty. One time, Casar said, his son asked him where they would go if they got deported, given that they no longer had a home in Venezuela.
Remembering this question, Casar said, "Thank God they let us in."
Of the more than 7 million Venezuelans who have fled during the nation's political and economic meltdown, the vast majority have ended up in other Latin American countries. But, though there are few in Tennessee, Venezuelan immigrants have also come to certain places in the U.S. -- particularly Florida, Texas and New York -- in great numbers, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
In September, according to The Associated Press, the Biden administration issued an order conferring Temporary Protected Status on Venezuelans who lived inside the U.S. as of July 31 — though it threatened to deport those who entered illegally after that date.
The designation basically says, "OK, you can come here and you can stay and you can work — but when we decide everything is fine in your country you go back," said Stephanie Bohon, who studies immigration at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
The designation is different from asylum — which, if granted, offers a path to citizenship.
The asylum process, Bohon said by phone, has varied between presidential administrations and is among the most debated and scrutinized aspects of the U.S. immigration system.
The rules can vary depending on an asylum seeker's nationality. Today, Bohon said, it is not uncommon for a Venezuelan immigrant to approach a U.S. border agent to say they are seeking asylum. Before being admitted to the U.S., where they would wait — for months or years — a final judgment on their claim, the person would generally go through security vetting and would be required to give proof of a credible fear that to return to their home country could lead to their imprisonment, torture or death.
Near the border wall near El Paso, Texas, Casar recalled, a U.S. official told his family to identify themselves, and they said they were Venezuelans seeking political asylum. As his family was taken away for processing, Casar recalled, their coyote filmed them entering the country — evidence of trustworthiness for future clients.
After a couple of days being detained and interviewed in El Paso, they were discharged to an area church — and soon traveled to Chattanooga, where he said his sister had connections.
They arrived in June 2022, and Casar said an acquaintance of his sister directed him to La Paz to get help. There, he said, the family was interviewed and given food and clothes.
"They were looking out for us," Casar said.
In a fiercely criticized policy, the U.S. imposes a long delay before giving asylum seekers legal permission to work. Without this documentation, Casar said he had few possibilities to make money. But he and his then-17-year-old son were able to get a gig with a landscaping company, and when that work dwindled, at a hotel along with his then-wife.
His children were studying and trying to acclimate — "They already speak English, to perfection," he said proudly, of his young daughters — and he and his son got another landscaping job. He said he earned money to send back home to support his father, who has cancer.
But the move had helped upset the balance of his family life. After a few months in the U.S., he said he and his wife — who he'd been with for more than two decades — split up.
"She didn't want to be with me anymore," Casar said.
He said his son, their eldest, stayed with him. At first they lived in Ooltewah near his wife and daughters, but when their gardening work slowed down in the winter, he said, they had to give up the apartment.
It was soon after this that La Paz was able to get him $750 through the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund — which received donations from the newspaper readers, which are then administered and distributed to individuals and families in need by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and partner agencies.
Recipients must be working or on a fixed income and be able to demonstrate ongoing stability and self-sufficiency after receiving Neediest Cases funds. According to United Way figures, the Neediest Cases Fund took in more than $57,000 last year.
Casar said the money was helpful; a pastor he knew offered to rent him and his son part of an apartment. He said his daughters would periodically come visit, but that became less practical as more people moved in. First came a woman from Honduras, who took the free room, Casar said. Then a family — mother, father and two children — came too.
Eight people now share the three-bedroom space, Casar said, and he walked up the stairs and opened the door to a room he shares with his son. Its furnishings were spare; it had two beds, bathed in sunlight, some clothing and a selfie ring light — which Casar said, with a smile, belonged to his son.
Downstairs, a Christmas tree stood beside stockings for everyone, pinned to the wall.
"I feel we have tried to help each other," Casar said of the apartment-mates. "And that's what it's about, helping each other and seeing how we can be ahead here, because there is no other way. Here we are, in the nation of opportunity, and we want to take advantage of it."
Still, Casar said his ex-wife, who still lives in Ooltewah, doubted the apartment was suitable for their daughters to visit.
"She has a point," Casar said, "because it's a lot of people, and they don't have adequate space here."
He said he doesn't want to fight his ex-wife on the matter — he fears if court officials got involved they could come by, see his living situation and pull his custody rights. He said he is seeking another place to rent with his son, but in the cold-season lull in gardening and painting houses, there's been no work and thus little money.
Recently, however, came a new development, which Casar called a blessing from God.
The blessing, he said, was conveyed via a recent phone call. Alhough, he said, his family's next asylum court hearing is still months out, his work permit was finally available. He excitedly went to retrieve it; he said his children got cards too.
Now able to legally work, he says he'll seek a commercial driver's license and a trucking job. This will take more time, though, and in the immediate term, he said he will take whatever work he can find.
He pulled out the card with his name, picture and an ID number on it and placed it on the coffee table in front of him.
"This, for me, opens doors," he said.